~ Natalie Dykstra, Professor of English
The Archive Stories team has had a very productive first week at the American Library in Paris (ALP), which started Monday morning with a tour of the library, an architectural gem. Tuesday evening was the library’s 99th birthday bash, which we were fortunate enough to attend. Kelly Jacobsma, Dean of Hope College Libraries, flew in that day, as did her daughter Hannah Jacobsma, Hope alumna ’16. It was wonderful to be together for the celebrations.
Hannah, Aine, and Kelly describe their work below:
~ Hannah Jones, English and women’s/gender studies major ‘21; and Aine O’Connor, English and history major ‘20
You know you’ve got a good thing going when the commute is one of the best parts of your job. We are amazed every morning by the beautiful Eiffel Tower, which appears through the haze of tourists, trees, and vendors who carry tiny miniatures of the massive structure. Luckily for us, our final destination, the American Library in Paris, is even more fun than getting there.
Over the past week, we have been delving into the library’s special collection on Janet Flanner. Flanner was a long-time writer for The New Yorker–many writers say she helped invent the magazine’s unique, quippy style. She captivated twentieth-century Americans with her vivid descriptions of life in Paris, from the murders and political scandals of the elites to the everyday struggles of poor, post-WWII Parisians. At some point (we are still discovering the mystery of exactly how), some of Flanner’s books were donated to the American Library in Paris. Our job over the past several days has been to catalog signatures, inscriptions, and annotations in each book in order to put together the story of Flanner in Paris. By examining her collection, we can glean information about who and what she loved, what worried her, frustrated her, excited her–in essence, we can begin to understand who she was.
What we’ve found has made us fall in love with Janet Flanner–or, at the very least, we’ve fallen in love with her humor, sass, and occasional straight-up savagery. One of the clearest themes we’ve found in the notes of her books is how well-liked she was. So many books include inscriptions full of warm admiration and love. In the circle of Americans in Paris in the post-WWII era, Flanner existed as a marginal figure, but her friendships with people like Gertrude Stein and Martha Gellhorn (the third wife of Ernest Hemingway) were close. And her connections were wide: at one point, she even received a letter from a special consultant to President Lyndon Johnson!
Some of the marginalia and notes in Flanner’s books reveal a sharp, even cutting side. She would correct the writing, sometimes taking issue with the author’s dates. Other books have pages full of comments and references. As you can see in the picture on the right, it is difficult to be charmed by Flanner’s handwriting. We spent an entire morning attempting to decode one story about Gertrude Stein, Stein’s partner Alice, and their poodle, Basket.
We have enjoyed every minute of our time at the library so far. Assistant Director Abigail Altman and the other members of staff at the library have been welcoming, kind, and enthusiastic to our little group from Hope College, and it is truly an honor to work alongside them in Paris, telling stories and creating spaces where everyone belongs.
~ Kelly Jacobsma, Dean of Hope College Libraries
When I arrived at the library, Aine and Hannah were well underway on the Flanner project and had already made several interesting discoveries. Abigail Altman, Assistant Director in charge of the library’s archives and special collections, provided a lot of historical background and context for the collections. The ALP is a hybrid between an extremely busy modern public library and an academic-type library serving American college and French students. The conference room was filled all afternoon with high school age students working collaboratively and studying for exams.
Working with archival collections, especially personal gift collections can unearth surprises, further questions and sometimes frustration. You cannot help wondering what someone was thinking when they wrote in the margins or why some previous librarian saved what they did. The library staff believes that Flanner’s books came to them as a gift from the estate of her friend Noel Haskins Murphy in 1983. I spent the afternoon going through library archives looking for further connections between Flanner and the library and was pleased to find evidence that she had been a subscribing member and donor. More discoveries to come!